A Day At The Seaside

It was a Monday morning and, since he was travelling the wrong way, he more or less had the carriage to himself. Somebody had abandoned a magazine. He flipped through the pages as the train clacked and jolted through the suburbs, scanning images of celebrities he’d never heard of; women with pink sausages for lips, men with broad shoulders, flat stomachs and daft little beards displaying themselves in their spotless mansions, along with their furniture, their chandeliers, their works of art and their glossy, unread books. He was longing for life to be grey, or sepia.

The sun glinted off something jammed down the divide between his seat and the next. It might just be a coin, of large enough denomination to buy himself a mug a tea when he arrived. He pictured himself in a seafront café, a steaming white china mug in front of him, the teabag string still dangling, he noticed. There appeared to be a red plastic tablecloth, a bottle of vinegar, a salt cellar and a dog-eared menu. He sensed a plate of fish and chips on the way and his mouth started watering at the thought of it.

But it wasn’t a coin, it was a mirror. The glass was filthy, as you might expect from something pushed between seats for a long time. It was the sort of thing a child would be drawn to: thick pinkish plastic round the edge and purple flower design, probably part of a set – the kind of tat down-at-heel grannies picked up in the Cheap Shop for birthday gifts and stocking-fillers.

He smeared it clean with his sleeve and, since no one was watching, glanced down at his reflection. He fully expected to see an old guy who hadn’t been bothering to cook much recently, a trifle emaciated, greyish stubble; expected also that death-by-boredom look in his eyes, that one-final-fling desperation, that nobody’s-going-to-talk-to-me expression.

Instead of that he saw a girl in a blue cotton dress with a band of complicated white embroidery across the bodice. It had those small puff sleeves with cuffs, like kids wore in the fifties. In fact her whole face was somehow antiquated – that fair, slightly greasy hair drawn up in a topknot and tied with a gingham ribbon, half-slipping down. She didn’t look at all like a kid might look like today. Was she was gazing at her own reflection, or back out at him? He ventured a smile. She smiled back, but whether she thought she was smiling at herself or back at him, he couldn’t tell.

He knew, of course, that vampires did not reflect in mirrors, and it would have surprised him less, somehow, if he’d been turned into one of those; but he’d never heard of an old man acquiring the reflection of a child, of the opposite gender and from way back in the past. If he’d been a character in one of his own crappy novels he’d no doubt have gasped, dropped the mirror, wrenched open the carriage door and jumped, breaking his neck in the process. His ghost stories or, as they called them nowadays, Supernatural Tales – didn’t sell well. Maybe he’d turn today into a story, if and when today was over.

The carriage had also changed. Above the seats were stylised, panoramic posters advertising Brighton. Pointy-breasted women in swirly skirts and woollen twinsets trailed little girls much like the one in the mirror; buckets and spades, bottles of pop, frilly sunshades – all so smug and wholesome. Everything was all right in their world.

Countryside flowed past, greener and less spoiled than it should have been. Steam clouded the windows in fits and starts. Of course, steam. Trains made a different sound in those/these days. He looked down at the unfamiliar body inside the blue dress, both of which he now somehow inhabited. He – no, she – had no breasts, which meant she would be nine or ten years old. There was a pocket in the side of dress. He/she slid the mirror into this. There was a button, and a buttonhole. He/she fastened the button carefully, and checked it. If it the mirror got lost, there might be no way back? There might be no way back in any case. He rather hoped not.

They could feel the sun on their arm through the window-glass. The window was open a crack at the top, and the smell the sea came through it –seaweed and salt from long ago. Up in the luggage rack – a string hammock – was a tin bucket shaped like a castle, with towers, and a red tin spade with a wooden handle. They would build a sandcastle, they thought. Warm sea-water would trickle between their toes. They would have fish and chips and penny cornets.

The sky would be blue all day.

(flash fiction: 805 words)

Strange stars appear in our skies

In Reason to Believe, Bruce Springsteen sings, “At the end of every hard-earned day / people find some reason to believe.” What’s your reason to believe?

I went back to the song itself, to digest the images he has conjured up for us:

  • A man stands on out Highway 31, poking at a dead dog with a stick, as if hoping it will get up and run.
  • A woman loves a man. One day he leaves her. She waits every day at the end of a dirt road, for him to come back.
  • A baby is baptised in the river, and his sin is washed away.
  • An old man dies in a shack, and his body is prayed over in a churchyard.
  • A groom waits by a river for his bride but she doesn’t arrive. The congregation leaves, the sun sets and the groom continues to wait, watching the river rushing by.

So this is about how we are transfixed by love, and continue to love when there is no reason to hope. This is about our sense, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that there is more than there appears to be; that the obvious and the logical need not apply. We assume the baby comes from another place, bringing with it a burden of some kind – whether of sin or ‘clouds of glory’. We assume that the old man has gone to another place, become something else, and therefore it is worth praying for him. The groom senses that in another place – another reality – his bride did arrive – and in yet another reality, might still. The man, puzzled by the dead dog and his inability to will (or poke) it back to life, has been ‘blurred’, momentarily, by a version of reality in which dead dogs do run and death has a different meaning.

And all this comes down to all things being possible, and the sensing of this by some people, even though it makes no sense. It seems to me that reality is a straightjacket; something we have to sew ourselves into, to be able to cope. Most people never feel the straightjacket, but some do – maybe those with a fractionally higher tolerance for uncertainty.

Suffering – because reality, when you do begin to sense it, hurts. It hurts so much. Jung wrote something about the process of individuation which struck a chord with me:

The words “many are called, but few are chosen” are singularly appropriate here, for the development of personality from the germ-state to full consciousness is at once a charisma and a curse, because its first fruit is the conscious and unavoidable segregation of the single individual from the undifferentiated and unconscious herd. This means isolation, and there is no more comforting word for it. Neither family nor society nor position can save him from this fate, nor yet the most successful adaptation to his environment, however smoothly he fits in. The development of personality is a favour that must be paid for dearly. But the people who talk most loudly about developing their personalities are the very ones who are least mindful of the results, which are such to frighten away all weaker spirits.”

I read something in a stranger’s blog yesterday about people who live in two worlds at once. I considered that carefully: it seemed almost right, but too simple, not quite fuzzy enough round the edges. As a child, and then a teenager, I knew that there was another world. It wasn’t a long way away, it wasn’t Up In Heaven – it was here, just not accessible. It was next door. My feeling was of standing next to a threshold: I only had to take one step to the left and I would have crossed the border. I needed to take that step, but I couldn’t work out how. I missed that world – felt a kind of homesickness for it.

I even wrote a poem, all those years ago. Reading that lady’s blog recalled it to me, but I assumed it was lost. I was wondering if I might be able to ‘reconstitute’ it from the few lines I could remember. But no need – here it is. I found it:

WE LIVE ON THE BORDERS

We live on the borders, some of us, / Between the other world and this. / Further out than all of you, / Still we can only peer at distant hills, / Catching whispers in the wind sometimes, / Channelling darkness drifting through, / Weaving the two. Strange stars appear in our skies.

We’d give our breath to breathe that other air, / And sanity to hear the singing truly – / For it is joy and madness both, to be so close / To all that’s dark and dreaming, and yet to have / No hope of homecoming.

Reading back over all the airy-fairy, grasping-at-thistledown stuff in this post I’m not sure it’s going to make sense to anybody. When you attempt to cross, or even approach, the boundary between This and Other, words bleach out; they lose their relevancy. But words are our shield against that Silence, and for the moment we do need that shield. I can only say – that’s what keeps me going. It’s not so much a reason to believe as a sense that I need to keep to my own internal faith however much it costs me. I must keep the channel open so that the music – and the darkness – can drift through.

Is there anybody there?

You may remember me describing a dream I had. I was standing in Nan and Grandad’s kitchen – this was after they had died – and Grandad pushed past me, muttering to himself. It was as if I wasn’t there – as if I had become the ghost.

It started me wondering. Is it possible that when you die you go on existing, but in some sort of alternative reality? You are not aware you have died. As far as you are concerned things are going along as normal, but you are in fact living a different version of your life. The people you once knew remain in the original life – close by, perhaps, but impossible now to touch.

And that made me think of the saying spiritualists use for people who have died – beyond the veil. What veil? I thought. Looking it up I discovered the veil was originally the one in Solomon’s temple – the same veil said to have been split from top to bottom during the crucifixion, and the final barrier between the Ark of the Covenant and the rest of the temple.

Why am I suffering a fit of ontological insecurity? It’s just that for the past 24 hours I’ve had no stats at all in connection with this blog. No little lit-up countries, no national flags, no ‘likes’, no visitors, no comments – nothing. Furthermore, I have had no emails; not even the one to say my cat litter will be delivered on Thursday, or the one offering to sign me up for a course in Journalism, or the one about Viagra. Have I disappeared? Has everybody in the world vanished? There’s nobody out in the street. I mean, I can hear a few things: somebody’s singing drunkenly further down the hill, the ice-cream van is playing a tinny version of Teddy Bear’s Picnic, one cat is threatening another cat – but nothing is moving. Well, maybe that tree waggled a bit, at the top. Hard to tell without the glasses…

Halloooo? Is there anybody there?